How Rock n’ Roll Changed Gender Expression
30 Nov 2022
We have a lot to thank Rock n’ Roll for. It not only gave us the timeless hits that we groove out to everyday, but also a rule-breaking revolution that helped us be able to express ourselves freely today. Throughout history, our world has created clear constructs of how men and women are expected to present themselves. These social constructs can affect where we work, the way we dress, and our overall self-expression and interests. In today’s world, we are becoming more comfortable expressing our true selves regardless of gender, but where does this new norm of gender fluidity stem from? Rock n’ Roll is just one of the many factors that has contributed to this movement.
In the early 1970s, many Rock n’ Roll musicians in the UK began to experiment with androgyny through wearing women’s makeup and clothing for photoshoots, interviews, performances, and even transferring it into their more casual everyday looks outside of their rock stardom. Thus began the ever-loved post-hippie phenomenon of Glam Rock, which was used by many musicians and was certainly a source of inspiration for many future rockstars' iconic looks.
David Bowie, now known as the King of Glam Rock, fully embraced this style and innovated it to a whole new level. When Bowie’s pivotal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars hit the record stores in 1972, people were intrigued by this new omnisexual alien persona Bowie had created. Ziggy Stardust was a messiah of rock stardom and sexual liberation who was sent to Earth to send a message of hope. Bowie dressed in slimming one-piece jumpsuits typically sporting flared legs and shoulders with a variety of bold, shiny colors. Makeup that accentuated his paleness using white face makeup and shaved eyebrows, as well as incorporating out-of-this-world elements such as red contour around the eyes and cheekbones, and a gold “astral sphere” painted on his forehead. Ziggy’s bright red shag hairstyle became a staple of popular fashion in the early seventies, as the shape of it suited people of all genders.
As expected, this character received mixed feelings from the public, but there was an overall relation from young people to his shameless individuality. There was an undoubted level of respect for what Bowie was doing for Rock n’ Roll, as he was unlocking new levels of self-expression for anyone and everyone to embrace. Bowie had a way of exuding intelligence and integrity in his artistic decisions, which made people listen, even when ideas were as risky and wild as pursuing an androgynous alien. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. After the release of his next album Aladdin Sane in 1973, Bowie decided to retire the character of Ziggy in July of that year. Although Ziggy Stardust was only around for 18 months, the impact on both the music industry and gender expression was monumental and has left a lasting legacy.
Soon, we would see many rockstars follow in Bowie’s footsteps, embracing their sexualities and challenging gender norms in their own unique way. In 1973, a new band came into the spotlight releasing their first self-titled album: Queen. The band’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, was already a very different face for Rock n’ Roll at the time being a man of Indian Parsi descent. Fortunately, he never had any interest in blending into the crowd. From his taste in fashion to his powerful, one-of-a-kind voice and presence onstage, Freddie Mercury would eventually become one of the greatest showmen in history.
In the mid to late 1970s, Mercury embraced the tail end of the Glam Rock era through creating his own androgynous look after the release of Queen’s album A Night at the Opera. By this time, dark makeup and colorful garments had made their way into more men’s wardrobes, so Mercury had to do a bit more to truly stand out from other artists. Luckily, Freddie Mercury just being himself was enough. Mercury was fascinated by femininity and incorporated many aspects of its nature into performances. He was heavily inspired by the fashion of the Elizabethan era when it was common for men to accentuate their narrow waists and long legs. Freddie also loved the Ballet and pursued the use of tights and leotards in performances to give him the mobility to move however he desired onstage. Mercury gave us many iconic Glam Rock looks that are still talked about today from his white angel sleeve outfit in 1974 to his black and white harlequin bodysuit in 1977. Mercury knew how to embrace his brilliance in every form and had no shame in doing so.
Of course, the men were not the only ones with a newfound freedom in gender expression. During her time in The Runaways, Joan Jett really began to find her style in the Glam Rock scene. She was able to embrace her own rocker style starting in the late ‘70s, which people at the time judged for being too masculine for a woman. Jett proved to the world that women can love jamming out and getting sweaty to some Rock n’ Roll music just as much as anyone else. Jett’s gritty style consists primarily of black clothing as the base with lots of accessories and the occasional pop of color, typically being red or pink. These accessories can include jewelry, bandanas, chains, studs, sparkles, and more. This ensemble paired with her black shag and heavy eye makeup complete the now classic rocker chick look coined by Joan Jett.
There are numerous amazing Rock n’ Roll artists who challenged gender expectations through exploring their style. We still see this is very common in today’s music with artists like Harry Styles, Adam Lambert, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and more pulling
inspirations from these 70s artists. In today’s world, there is less of a stigma surrounding the way we each individually express our gender, and is much more normalized and accepted for music artists to explore these things. Artists who gained popularity in the 1970s like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Joan Jett are just a few that contributed to this gender and sexuality-exploring movement in Rock n’ Roll. Some honorable mentions include Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Edgar Winter and many more! All of these artists, whether passed on or still alive and rockin’, inspire us today to be ourselves and embrace our unique qualities without shame. Thank you Rock n’ Roll!
Written by Miranda Kanowsky